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What we learned against Maryland: Ready or not, big games loom

The Wolverines did what they needed to do against the Terrapins. Now on to Wisconsin.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Maryland Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Championships are won in November, and while Michigan’s performance in October likely eliminated it from championship contention, this is still the month for the Wolverines to prove they can be disruptors and a team to be respected.

What happens over the next two games will say a ton about this team. And what’s happened over the last three games, after the team hit a low-point on the season after losing to Penn State, opponents should be reawakened to Michigan’s ability to compete.

Saturday at Maryland was this team’s last chance to face an inferior opponent, and Michigan did what it was supposed to do — jump out to an early lead, control the game and take the win. Now, the team can put the previous 10 games behind it and focus on the tough but short road ahead.

We, however, can take one more look back at the Maryland game and the lessons we learned against the Terrapins.

Lesson 1: Complacency is the enemy to success

A lot went right for Michigan against Maryland. The defense held the Terrapins to just 10 points, tying a season low in points surrendered. The offensive line didn’t allow any sacks and only four run plays went for negative yards. Brandon Peters completed nine passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, Michigan has yet to turn the ball over since Peters took over at quarterback.

Michigan took a 28-0 lead into the locker room at halftime looking to be in complete control of the game. But in the second half, the Wolverines went “conservative” — which, in this case, just looked like complacency.

You could make the case that they were just coasting so that they could get out of Maryland and look ahead to Wisconsin. That doesn’t seem like a particularly good excuse, though, at least to me, for a team that has struggled for much of the season.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Maryland Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

At halftime, Michigan not only held a 28-0 lead, but also a 212-112 edge in total yardage. In the second half, Maryland outscored the Wolverines 10-7 while out-gaining them 228-93.

Truthfully, Michigan was lucky the game remained as much of a blowout as it was. This was mostly because of things like:

  • Maryland throwing an interception to David Long in the end zone
  • Maryland missing a 43-yard field goal early in the second half
  • Michigan stopping Maryland at the 2-yard-line to force a chip shot field goal

Would the Terrapins have won the game? No. If they had capitalized on those things, they would have added another 14 points, making it a 35-24 game. But complacency keeps teams in games who have no business being in games.

Maybe I’m making this a bigger issue than it really is, but we’ve seen over the last two seasons that Harbaugh teams sometimes let opponents hang around in games. Elite programs need to keep the pedal to the metal. Hopefully Michigan will be in the position to do that in the next two contests.

Lesson 2: Without exception, Michigan must capitalize in the red zone

If Michigan is going to continue to be successful, the offense must be efficient and the Wolverines must not leave any points on the field. Though it was in a game when they led by four scores against Maryland, the Wolverines certainly left points on the field Saturday.

Early in the season, Michigan had a serious problem converting touchdowns in the red zone. Seriously, remember that? Quinn Nordin was kicking field goal after field goal, and it got to the point that fans joked he would be the team’s MVP.

But now it seems the struggles have flipped: the offense has had success finding the end zone with Brandon Peters under center the last few weeks, but Nordin has struggled — missing one field goal in each of the last three games, while also missing two extra points in the last four games.

With Nordin, it got to the point against Maryland, after missing a 31-yard field goal, that Harbaugh actually yelled to him on the sidelines, “Start making ‘em,” with an understandably angered look on his face (though the exchange was reportedly not actually heated).

First, the offense was unreliable and so Nordin had to be. Now, Nordin has been unreliable and so the offense has had to be. It will surely be impressive when everything comes together. Maybe Saturday in Madison?

Lesson 3: Ready or not, big games loom

Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland are now in the rearview. Those three opponents came at an opportune time for this Wolverines squad that had struggled in the weeks prior. The matchups gave players like Brandon Peters a chance to find their fit in the offense, while others like Chris Evans were able to reassert themselves into main contributing roles. But the days of Michigan being favored are over for 2017.

With Wisconsin upcoming this week and Ohio State to follow, this team has run out of time to develop — they will either be ready or they won’t. Against Maryland, Michigan did a lot of good things. The offense got the ball into the end zone, Peters made some throws, Karan Higdon and Evans had some nice runs, and the defense did what it has done all season — bending but not breaking.

Following the beatdown in Happy Valley, this program was in a bad place. Fans were starting to turn on Jim Harbaugh. They wanted John O’Korn out of the starting quarterback role. They were questioning the toughness of this defense. They were wondering how this team, albeit young, had yet to develop as quickly as expected. (I had plenty of concerns myself.)

But then the last three weeks happened, and while not all struggles have been corrected, the Wolverines have surely developed at an accelerated pace and there is a renewed confidence in their ability to compete with the likes of the Badgers and Buckeyes.

Is this defense strong enough to stop Wisconsin and Ohio State? Absolutely. Is Peters and the offense ready to put up points on tough defenses? Hopefully. The Wolverines will need to play nearly flawless games to keep up in the next two contests, but we’ve seen flashes over the last few weeks to know that the pieces are all there — they just have to put them all together.